During the winter, many patients go to their doctor’s office seeking a remedy for their annual cold. Often, however, their symptoms turn out to be the result of something else entirely: allergies. “How can this be?” they ask, “I only get allergies in the spring.” In fact, winter allergies are extremely common and are easily confused with the common cold because the symptoms are so similar.
So what causes winter allergies?
Winter allergies (indoor allergies) are caused by factors entirely different than those responsible for spring allergies, (outdoor allergies). During the winter, people start spending more time indoors. When the weather gets cold, indoor heating systems send dust, mold spores, and insect parts into the air. For reasons that scientists don’t yet understand, some people react to dust or mold spores as if they were a pathogen. Thus, an antibody response is triggered.
Winter allergies often get confused with the common cold because it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two conditions. Although they are caused by different things, a virus and an allergen both set off the immune system, which is why the symptoms overlap. Winter allergy symptoms include coughing, itchy eyes and nose, runny nose, sneezing, and watery eyes.
As these symptoms are similar to those experienced with a cold, how can you tell the difference between a common cold and winter allergies? Typically a cold doesn’t last more than 10 days, whereas allergies can persist for weeks or even months. A cold can sometimes be accompanied by aches or fever, which are symptoms that don’t usually occur with allergies. Also, some symptoms such as itchiness of the eyes and throat are more likely to occur with allergies.
“With a cold, first you feel crummy, then you’re sick, and then gradually your symptoms go away,” says Joan Lehach, MD, an integrative medicine physician specializing in allergy and asthma at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “Allergies last longer.” According to Dr Lehach, at least half of her patients who first go to their family doctors for cold symptoms are told that they are not suffering from colds.
Treatments for winter allergies include antihistamines to reduce sneezing, sniffling, and itching; decongestants to clear mucus and to relieve congestion and swelling; and allergy shots to gradually expose the body to the allergen, which can reduce symptoms.
The best course of action, however, is to prevent winter allergies in the first place. To do this, patients should minimize their exposure to allergens. They should be advised to replace old shower curtains and to give the bathroom a thorough cleaning to get rid of mold. A HEPA air filter can be used to control dust, bedding should be washed in hot water at least once a week, and wall-to-wall carpeting should cleaned regularly or avoided completely. To reduce pet dander allergies, it is wise to ban pets from sleeping in the bedroom, and they should be given a bath at least once a week.
If symptoms persist and are annoying enough to interfere with daily life, patients should consider visiting an allergy specialist. A skin test can be administered in one visit to identify the exact allergen causing their symptoms, leading to a more specific plan of action.
- Adams JU. Sniffing and sneezing? It might be winter allergies. How to know if it’s not cold. The Washington Post website. March 3, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/sniffing-and-sneezing-it-might-be-winter-allergies-how-to-know-if-its-not-cold/2014/03/03/632571c6-9d8f-11e3-9ba6-800d1192d08b_story.html. Accessed March 3, 2016.
- Winter allergies. WebMD website. http://www.webmd.com/allergies/guide/winter-allergies. Accessed March 3, 2016.